In the days running up to my most recent visit to the West End, many people thought I was travelling to watch princesses skate around an ice rink singing Let It Go. In reality, Bryony Lavery’s Frozen could only be described as the polar opposite of its Disney blockbuster namesake.
Set in England in the 1980s and 1990s, this psychological thriller returns to London some 16 years after it appeared in the National Theatre. Frozen tells the stories of Nancy (Suranne Jones), Ralph (Jason Watkins) and Agnetha (Nina Sosanya), three people whose lives become intertwined in the grisliest of circumstances.
Ralph is a disturbed individual with a fondness for tattoos, a beloved collection of pornography tapes featuring minors and a habit of kidnapping, abusing and murdering children. Heartbreakingly for Nancy, her 10-year-old daughter Rhona falls prey to him on the way to visit her grandmother one afternoon, though she doesn’t discover this until several years after her disappearance.
Agnetha, an American psychologist, has an interest in criminal psychology and works to unearth the reasons behind why people like Ralph behave the way they do. Frequenting the prison where Ralph is held, she works to gain his trust – and insight into why he did what he did.
For me, Watkins was the stand-out performer from the get-go, delivering a performance that was no less than chilling. So convincing is his performance that there were times throughout the play when I actually forgot that he isn’t the character he’s portraying. As unsettling as it was to watch Ralph pore over his VHS collection and treat each tape with such care and affection (even referring to them as ‘precious’ at one point, which was all the more disturbing given that the word is oftentimes used to describe a child), there are moments when he appears entirely harmless. And that is exactly what makes Watkins’ performance so sinister.
Jones, staring off into the distance as she delivers her monologues, creates a likeable character from the outset; something I’ve found her able to do in all her on screen roles. Frozen gifts her with some powerful scenes and, although the tension is occasionally broken with a witty comment or two, Nancy’s grief never fades – it’s almost as though you can see it resting upon her shoulders, weighing her down.
Sosanya portrays multidimensional Agnetha with true conviction. Smart and savvy, Agnetha’s character is much more difficult to empathise with, despite having so much empathy herself. To say that it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone who would choose to comfort a convicted paedophile and serial killer is an understatement yet, somehow, Sosanya succeeded in getting me to feel something more than disgust towards Ralph, if only for a split second.
Ralph, having lived most of his life emotionally detached from the crimes he’s committed, struggles under the weight of feeling a sudden sense of remorse for the things he has done and – with young characters unseen throughout the majority of the show – I feel this makes Rhona’s appearance in the final few scenes representative of Ralph’s new-found conscience.
Dark and disruptive, Frozen doesn’t make for comfortable viewing – and rightly so. The life-destroying events that Frozen brings to stage exist beyond the walls of TRH and that’s exactly why this story is such an important one.
Approx. running time: 2 hours 30 minutes